Literary Challenge #48 : The Long Road
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Join Date: Jul 2012
08-22-2013, 12:20 PM
The interior of the bar was crowded and noisy. The Vulcan paused on the threshold, scanning the crowd carefully, until his gaze alighted on the careworn Andorian woman seated in a booth. She saw him at the same time, smiled, and waved one hand in acknowledgment. He made his way over to her table.
"Commander Tallasa. It is good to see you."
Tallasa's smile broadened. "Good to see you, too, Saval. How have you been?"
"I am well." Saval took a seat. "And you?"
Tallasa sighed. "I've been
. But it's certainly been, well, interesting."
"I can well imagine."
"How have things been... generally? Did you manage to - to adjust?"
Saval made a thoughtful face. "There were problems, initially. My youngest daughter found it - unusual - to be the same age as me. But logic dictated adjustments be made, so they were made. What of yourself?"
"Nothing to adjust." She looked away from him, her eyes focused on nothing. "He who was my
-father died during the - the interval. But he was dead to us in any case." She turned her eyes back to Saval. "Most of us who are still with the Admiral are in a similar case. Clanless Andorians, discommendated Klingons -"
"I understand. It is logical."
Tallasa's face, which had grown sombre, broke out in a smile again. "You don't change."
Then a voice behind them cried out, "Saval! You old dog, you!" Saval turned.
The human woman was thin to the point of gauntness, her skin milk-pale, her hair short and spiky. Her brown right eye sparkled with obvious pleasure; her left was concealed by the ugly grey-black shape of a Borg implant, laser light gleaming fitfully within it. She grinned at the Vulcan, her face all sharp planes and angles, making the expression almost feral.
"Vice Admiral Grau," Saval said, rising politely.
"Call me Ronnie. And sit down," said Ronnie Grau, "sit
. Damn, you haven't changed a bit! Still got the God-awful facial hair, even!" She reached out with one hand to ruffle the sideburns that framed the Vulcan's long face. Her fingers, too, were studded with cybernetic implants. "This calls for a real drink! None of that damn synthehol rubbish Tallasa's always trying to poison me with -"
And with that, she turned away, sauntering towards the bar, singing "Hail, hail, the gang's all here", in a loud and distressingly tuneless voice.
Saval resumed his seat. "I see the Admiral has... changed," he commented.
"Yes," Tallasa replied, tersely.
"And yet, she has been promoted - I believe, to the highest level she has ever attained. Is there no concern over her mental state?"
worry about her mental state," said Tallasa. "Only on days that have a 'Y' in their names, though.... Fact is, she's as tactically brilliant as ever. We've been through some things - well. I'll have to tell you about them, sometime."
Saval gazed in the direction of the bar. "She appears to be involved in an altercation with a Gorn," he said.
"Oh, don't worry about that, it's normal."
"Arguing with the Gorn may be normal... losing the argument, though, may prove painful."
"For the Gorn, probably. She's still heavily loaded up with Borg implants." Tallasa shook her head. "Including one in her mouth... she uses it as a bottle opener. The worst thing was when Lieutenant Haloy got drunk and took a dare - tried to french-kiss her. Medics managed to save his tongue, fortunately."
Saval raised one eyebrow. "You appear to be part of an... interesting... crew."
"So are you, now, remember."
Ronnie loped back, carrying a tray of drinks in one hand. "Damn Gorn backed down, wouldn't arm-wrestle me," she said with a pout. "
Your mother was a handbag!
" she yelled over her shoulder at the Gorn. Negotiations with the Gorn separatists were at a delicate stage, Saval thought. Prudently, he said nothing. Ronnie set down the drinks. "Aldebaran whisky, Saurian brandy, and... I can't remember what you drink, Saval, so I got one of each. Cheers!" She picked up a glass of green fluid and swallowed half of it at one gulp.
"Your health, sir," said Tallasa, taking the brandy and sipping it cautiously. After a barely perceptible hesitation, Saval followed suit. Ronnie crashed heavily into a chair, her long limbs sprawling out in all directions. "Here's mud in your eye!" she said, and took another swig.
"I see you are in good spirits, Vice Admiral," said Saval.
Ronnie laughed. "You really don't change, do you?" she said. "Yes, and all the better for seeing you and your whiskers. We're gonna have some fun!"
"Some might have thought," Saval said, "that your career had been... sufficiently eventful already."
Ronnie cocked her head to one side, considering. "Yes," she said in more thoughtful tones. "Yes, I suppose it's been a pretty long, strange road...."
Commander Martin Hudson repressed a disdainful sniff as his captain took her place in the centre seat.
It ought to be mine
, he thought to himself, looking at the slender, dark-haired woman whose blue coveralls hung loosely on her spare frame.
. Oh, he knew the stories, how Ronnie Grau had taken over when her ship's bridge was breached by Romulan plasma fire, how she'd commanded the crippled vessel from auxiliary control and made the enigmatic aliens pay with three of their own ships... but, really, did that merit command of one of the new Federation fleet's best ships?
"Status?" she asked.
"Still on course." Hudson was determined to remain nothing less than professional - if only to show up her casual, offhand, irreverent attitude. "The Tellarite freighter veered off at 0200 hours, as expected. Their captain advised us against continuing our investigation."
Ronnie Grau raised her eyebrows. "I bet that's not how he put it," she said.
"'Tell her, if she's damn fool enough to mess with the Stygmalian Rift, she can damn well do it without me'," Ensign Koslov quoted from the comms station. Ronnie laughed. Then her sharp face turned serious again.
"Anything showing up ahead?" she asked.
"Sensor sweeps are clear across the board," Hudson replied. "This region of space may have a - a reputation - but, so far, we've come up with nothing to justify it."
Ronnie frowned. "There must be
," she said. "Tellarites may argue for no reason, but they don't run scared for no reason... there has to be something out here." Her brow cleared. "Something we can take back to show that damned stuffed shirt Admiral Reed, I hope."
Hudson shook his head. What
she have against Admiral Reed? The man had been responsible for making NX-class ships like the
what they were, the dependable workhorses of the new-era Starfleet. He was a fine officer and a fine man....
"If there's nothing there," Ronnie said, abstractedly, "it's not going to be easy to spot where this 'rift' begins... Are you sure there's no
thing on sensors?" She started. "What was that?"
"What was what?" Hudson asked.
"Something happened...." Ronnie's voice trailed off.
Unobtrusively, Hudson picked up a stylus.
If she's seeing things, starting to crack up
, he thought,
I'll make sure it's documented, all the way.
It was almost as an afterthought that he checked the sensor console -
And froze. "There's a ship out there!" he yelled. "My God, it's almost on top of us! And it's huge!"
"Sir!" Koslov spoke up from comms. "I have an incoming communication - on Starfleet frequency -"
"On screen," Ronnie ordered.
The viewscreen flickered, and a picture took shape. It showed what was clearly the bridge of a starship... but not a starship of any class Hudson recognized. The centre seat was occupied by a stern, grey-haired man, wearing dark trousers and a bright yellow shirt. He spoke.
"Unidentified vessel, this is Captain Andrew Hart of the Federation starship
. You have ventured into a hazardous region of space." A man - a Vulcan, Hudson realized - in a blue shirt stepped up to the captain, spoke inaudibly into his ear. Hart frowned. "Your transponder code and ship configuration matches that of the USS
, lost in this sector nearly a hundred years ago -"
Hudson's stylus fell from his numbed fingers and clattered to the deck. It was the loudest sound on the bridge.
Ronnie was first to find her voice. "I'd dispute
, Captain," she said. "I guess I'd have to own up to...
, Ronnie thought,
is what the future ought to look like
. Brushed steel and indirect lighting, none of those blocky modular consoles... and proper science-fiction tunics instead of those primary-coloured shirts.
, she thought,
I could get used to these new Constitution refits... they've got style
"At coordinates," the helmsman reported.
Ronnie nodded. "Intraship address."
"Channel open, sir," the comm officer sang out.
Ronnie took a deep breath. "This is Captain Grau to all hands. We are now approaching the navigational hazard known as the Stygmalian Rift. Now, most of you know that the last time I was here, I got time-warped ninety-eight years into the future. We're going to try to
"My old ship, the
, had no detectors capable of picking up the time distortion at the heart of the Rift. Time moved on, though -" her mouth quirked into a wry smile "- and the
is carrying chroniton sensors that will keep us out of harm's way. We're going to move parallel to the temporal fissure, scanning and charting as we go. With luck, the data we get will enable the bright guys back at Starfleet Science to nail down what's happening here, maybe even close the thing off for good. Okay, people, let's move." She clicked off the channel, and sat down, tugging nervously at her uniform. It might look properly futuristic, but it was still too roomy for her.
"Ahead one-quarter impulse."
surged smoothly forwards, her blue-glowing deflector dish pulsing as the scanning probes set to work, sending out waves of exotic energies on frequencies unimagined a hundred years before.
On the viewscreen, a holographic display showed the ship's progress along the invisible boundary of the temporal anomaly. Ronnie leaned forward, staring at it intently, her dark eyes sparkling. Data scrolled up the margins of the screen, numbers flashing past too quickly to register, but stored in the ship's computer, to form part of the analysis that would
dim changeless light and frozen stasis, and at the edge, something, a flicker of motion and colour in the periphery of an unimaginable vision, a glimpse of something in a direction never imagined before
expose the anomaly's mysteries -
"Give me a status report!" she snapped.
Every head on the bridge turned towards her. "Status normal," a science officer reported. "On course and holding."
"Wait a minute," the comm officer said. "I'm reading - Sir, there's a discrepancy in our nav beacons. The nearest array is sending us an amended timestamp - no, that
be right -" He paled. "Sir... the reading it's giving... it's a stardate nearly ninety years in the future!"
Silence fell over the bridge. Ronnie broke it. "Oops," she said.
She settled back into the command chair as the bridge broke into an uproar. "I promised my mother I'd be home for Christmas!" one ensign was shrieking, over and over, as kind hands helped her towards sickbay.
Nobody noticed Ronnie's lips moving, or heard what she muttered. "Changed the rules on me, did you? Oh, that's not nice... I'll get you for that. Next time. I'll be ready for you. Next time."
Saval stepped onto the bridge of the USS
and took in the scene. The Andorians, Tallasa and her sister Jhemyl, were at the helm and ops consoles; the Klingon renegade, Ahepkur, flashed her teeth in what he hoped was a smile from the tactical controls. Saval moved to the science station.
Ronnie Grau sat in the centre seat, her stick-thin limbs huddled around her. She stared at the deck.
"Sir." Tallasa's voice was quiet and gentle. "Sir, it's time." Ronnie looked up.
Her body mass index is unusually low for a human
, Saval thought.
Possibly sub-optimal if health is to be maintained.
"OK," said Ronnie, and her voice rasped. "Put me on the speakers. One more time," she added in an undertone.
"All right," she said, and her voice echoed over the intercom. "This is the captain. You know what's happening, you're all volunteers, Starfleet wouldn't let anyone come with me who wasn't... but this is it. My personal white whale, I guess. You're all invited to the party." She laughed harshly. "We are now on approach course to the Stygmalian Rift. It's kicked me into the future twice now, but I think I'm making headway, honest I am. We've got a ship with, I think, the right equipment, and if Dr. Saval's chroniton metrics pan out, we should be able to send a beam through the main deflector that will shut this sucker down, once and for all.
"But this is your last chance. He who hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart, his passport shall be made, and crowns for convoy put into his purse... don't get the reference? Anyone who's changed their minds about taking the chance, get down to the shuttle bay and get on out of here. Last chance. Smell those burning bridges, people? If you're not with me, go, and go
. Grau out." She turned to Saval, and her dark gaze burned into him. "Hope you make better decisions about physics than you do about hairstyles, Saval."
"I am confident we will achieve our aims," Saval said. Ronnie cackled again. Saval turned his attention to the console, to the data flashing across the screen. This apparently empty region of space was alive with temporal distortions, with energy flows that crossed dimensional boundaries and made a mockery of causality. Sometimes, Saval thought he could almost see a pattern behind them.... Sometimes, when he looked at Ronnie Grau and saw the expression in her eyes, he thought she had seen something, too.
"Three shuttles have launched," Tallasa reported in a level voice.
"Stuff 'em, then," said Ronnie. "Ahead three-quarters impulse."
"Aye, aye," said Jhemyl, her fingers already racing across the helm controls.
Saval keyed in the first sequence on his console. "Ready to commence initial chroniton probes," he said.
," said Ronnie. "No probes. All or nothing - go direct to the energy pulse. Sucker-punch the thing. Don't give it any warning...."
"It is not a conscious entity," Saval protested, "and I require data if the margin of error is to be eliminated."
"No," said Ronnie.
"Do as the Captain orders!" growled Ahepkur. The discommendated Klingons were fiercely loyal to anyone who would
their loyalty, Saval remembered. He thought furiously for a second. The data from the
had been consistent - his analysis should hold up - but there would be a risk -
But Captain Grau, it seemed, was not concerned about risks.
"Energising main deflector," he heard himself say, and Ronnie gave a contented sigh.
"Thirty seconds to contact," Jhemyl said.
Saval's fingers danced on the console, and a distant hum sounded in the EPS system as the full power of a Galaxy-class starship was channelled into the deflector dish. "Configuration complete," he reported, his attention still on the flickering readouts.
Is it right?
he asked himself.
"Come on," Ronnie muttered, "come on, come on, come
"In range," Jhemyl said.
"Activating." Saval's index finger came down on the button. The ship shuddered.
Saval's eyes turned to Ronnie. All of a sudden, she was standing, her wiry body trembling, her eyes fixed on empty space. Saval was more than ever convinced that she had seen -
. But what?
It didn't work!
" she screeched.
Saval turned back to his console. With a sickening feeling, he realized she was right. "The energy pulse was... off by a factor of 0.15," he reported. "We have been transported forwards in time... some twenty-four years."
There was an exclamation from someone on the bridge, but it was drowned by Ronnie's voice. "Only
? And you know how far
"Yes," said Saval. He felt his emotions rising within him, forced them under control.
Twenty-four years. There will be personal difficulties... these must be faced. At the proper time.
"I will adjust the emission parameters."
Ronnie's face was contorted. "
Bring us round for another pass.
"You can't!" a voice called out, and Ahepkur rounded on the speaker with a snarl.
"Steering two zero zero mark two," Jhemyl called out from the helm. "Coming about."
Ronnie fixed Saval with a glare. "Get it
"Parameters adjusted," Saval reported. "Powering up the deflector."
The viewscreen flared as empty space suddenly erupted into dazzling light. The deck vibrated, then suddenly rocked and bucked as shockwaves pounded the
. Saval clung to his console as the colours span on the viewscreen. Damage control lights sparked on, and alerts screamed across the bridge. The data displays on the console were a jumble of meaningless numbers -
"Working." Jhemyl sounded as emotionless as any Vulcan. "Structural integrity holding. Inertial dampers compensating for the spatial fluctuations...."
"Sir," said Tallasa, "I'm getting readings from astrometrics.... I think it worked, this time. The rift... turned inside out, or something like that. We're not any further forward in time, but we've been displaced in space."
"Turned it into a wormhole," said Ahepkur. "Big enough to swallow Qo'nos."
The data on Saval's console was starting to make sense. "I concur," he said. "We appear to have travelled some thirty thousand light years, to the fringes of the Delta Quadrant. The wormhole is still present, but decaying - I estimate forty hours to its complete collapse."
"Plenty of time to make repairs, sir, and get
back home," said Tallasa. "It's over, sir."
"Hope so," muttered Ronnie. Her eyes were wide.
What did she see?
Saval wondered again. "All right. Make it so. Let's get to it." Somehow, Saval thought, she sounded more like a Starfleet commander.
Then he looked down at his console. "I have sensor contacts at extreme range," he said. "Large, and closing rapidly. There are energy emissions and subspace pulses - I believe they are attempting to communicate."
"All right," said Ronnie, "let's hear it."
There was a brief pause, full of random tones and bleeps, and then a voice spoke. Or not one voice, but a chorus of voices, in a dire, atonal chant.
We are the Borg. Surrender your vessel. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.
Ronnie swore. "Looks like we ran out of time for those repairs." She stabbed at her command panel. "All hands. This is the captain. Activating contingency Omega. All hands to assigned stations." She stood. "Tallasa, you have the conn. Get the saucer section back through the wormhole." She turned and sprinted for the turbolift.
"Sir!" There was raw emotion in Tallasa's voice. "My place is with you."
Ronnie turned in the turbolift's doorway. "Your place is to
get my people to safety
!" she shouted. "Battle section will buy you all the time you need, and we'll be right behind you - you get as many as you can,
Saval and his data, back to Starfleet! We'll rig spatial charges to collapse the wormhole once we're through - now
take the conn!
" And she plunged into the turbolift, and the doors hissed shut behind her.
Tallasa drew a deep breath. Her face was a stone. "Prepare for emergency saucer separation."
Scant minutes later, the
split in two, the saucer section skimming away towards the blue-white maw of the wormhole, while the battle section, spitting golden light and defiance from its phaser arrays, turned towards the oncoming cubes.
Snatches of conversation floated around the ensign as he made his way to the USS
"... never expected the Borg, not out here, not so close...."
"... Vega Colony is months away, no reason to think they'd aim there...."
He reached the captain's chair, saluted, cleared his throat nervously. Captain Mason Karima looked up, annoyance registering on his darkly handsome face. "What is it?"
"Sir, it's - um - we picked up some Borg drones, sir. On the planet's surface, after we knocked out the probe?"
"Well," said Captain Karima, "standard protocols apply, then. Liberate them if possible, restrain them in stasis if not."
"Yes, sir, but one of them - sir, the medics say you should see for yourself -"
The captain's frown deepened, but he let the ensign lead him to the turbolift, and down into the ship's brig, where dark figures stood behind force-field doors, menacing and silent.
"This one, sir." The ensign indicated one of the drones - a female, Karima thought, human or humanoid, very thin. The drone stood there, looking at him impassively through the field -
No, Karima realized, it wasn't impassive. There was intelligent awareness in the drone's one visible eye, and the mouth was twisted, around its cybernetic implants, into something like a smile - and was that dark stubble, sprouting across its hairless scalp?
"Captain," said the drone. "M' name's Veronika Grau - call me Ronnie, ev'ryone does." She winced, and put one hand to the implant in her mouth. "This's gonna have t'go - makes it hard t'talk."
Karima found his voice. "You're - liberated? Self-aware?"
"Looks like it, doesn' it?"
"But - but how?"
"Lemme tell you," said Ronnie. "See, y'know what th' wors' thing is about th' Collective?
career progression. I was Two of Twelve, secondary adjunct to unimatrix zero seven, an' no matter
well I did th' job, they were
gonna make me One of Twelve. So I quit." The twisted smile broadened. "So, Starfleet got any openings? 'Cause I wanna re-up."
"... a pretty long, strange road," said Ronnie. "And no reason to think we've reached the end of it!"
"The Stygmalian Rift is closed," said Saval.
Ronnie made an expansive gesture, nearly knocking over the table. "One door closes, another opens. Or rift. Whatever." She looked thoughtfully at the Vulcan. "So why'd you come back to Starfleet, anyway?" she asked.
"I... felt an obligation," said Saval. "When I learned that you had been liberated from the Collective, I considered my position, and I decided that I owed you my service. It was, after all, my error which -"
"No," said Ronnie, "that was
fault, I rushed you. My mistake. I've learned from it, and next time you tell me you need more data, I'll take your advice."
"Thank you, sir."
"Advice on science, that is. Advice on personal grooming, not a chance. Those whiskers are
Tallasa laughed. After a moment, Saval smiled. "It is a matter of personal taste, sir."
"I don't want to know what they taste like." Ronnie took another swallow of Aldebaran whisky. "Anyway. Here we all are, and off on the
soon as they let her out of spacedock, and I don't want to hear any more cracks about how that's the wrong name for my ship, OK? Just got a few chores to do Earth-side, admin, and the Academy - and then we're off into the wild black yonder." She took a deep breath. She was going to sing again, Saval realized with a sinking feeling.
, he thought,
I do owe you a service - Vice Admiral. And, also... perhaps I will get to find out what you saw.